Each time I think about the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children streaming across the U.S. southern border, often without adult companions, three thoughts skitter across my mind: What would Sir Nicholas Winton think? What is the purpose of America? And what is the meaning of life?
Sir Nicholas Winton celebrated his 105th birthday in London recently, surrounded by about 100 guests. Most were offspring of the 669 children he saved from the Nazis in 1938 and 1939.
Last week, many people in Bethpage and throughout Long Island erupted in outrage the federal government might consider an old Grumman facility to house some of the children. The option surfaced as part of a preliminary national list of empty buildings.
Nassau officials swung into action, with a county spokesman saying, "The Bethpage site would not be suitable as environmental issues make it hazardous for housing children." This, by all accounts, is true: contamination is such that putting kids there was never a real possibility. Rep. Steve Israel (D-Huntington) said "It is not a viable solution to simply place unaccompanied children from Central America in temporary shelters." If the other option is being killed for refusing to join a gang, or raped, it is a viable solution, albeit a short-term one.
The tone of the public discourse was horrendous, the comments on Newsday.com vile even by the standards of anonymous Internet forums.
In that context, it showed good political instincts that County Executive Ed Mangano set up a robocall letting people know he, Israel and Rep. Pete King (R-Seaford) had seen to it the kids wouldn't be headed to Bethpage. The point of the robocall, of course, was to tell residents they were safe from the Central American children, not to reassure them the kids were safe from a polluted site.
Now back to Winton, a stockbroker who went on a trip to Prague in 1938. He spent three weeks there discovering the dangers faced by Jews made refugees by the Nazi invasion of the Czech Sudentenland, and immediately set about organizing train evacuations of children. He convinced foster homes to take kids, convinced German officials to let the children leave, convinced the United Kingdom to let them in. He lied, forged documents and did anything possible to save every kid he could until war broke out in September of 1939 and his opportunity to help ended.
About 6,000 descendants of those 669 people, living all over the world today, owe Winton their lives. He chose to do this, others did not. People lived because of his actions, but 10,000 times as many died because nations wouldn't accept Jews and individuals wouldn't help.
U.S. Customs and Border Protection expects to nab 90,000 kids at the border this year, up from 25,000 last year. They are coming because their home countries, mostly Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, are hellish pits of gang warfare and other violence. It is so bad, the children are sent by loving parents to walk hundreds or thousands of miles to the United States, hoping they'll be allowed to stay, to live with relatives or friends.
Let them in, and if their numbers double and increase tenfold, continue to let them in. They'll make us a stronger, more vital nation, as immigrants have. They'll love and protect this nation with a ferocity many Americans can't match, and be part of a brilliant future.
But let's say that in pursuing the noble and godly goal of caring for these children, giving them the gifts of freedom and security, we bankrupt and doom the United States.
I'd rather have it go down that way than see the nation prosper along a less noble path.
Lane Filler is a member of the Newsday editorial board.